Race and Social Justice in America Part 3

The purpose of this series has been to define the socio-cultural context for the sermons of Revered Jeremiah Wright, former pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago and friend and advisor to Democratic Presidential hopeful Barack Obama. It is my contention that, as they so often do, the media has taken his remarks out of context and thereby distorted both the meaning and the intention of those remarks.

The first article in this series, <a href=”http://jbotscharow.com/node/354&#8243; title=”Race and Justice in America Part i”>Race and Justice in America Part 1</a>, used some sociological data on capital punishment and wrongful convictions to establish the fact that <strong>institutionalized</strong> social injustice based on race still exists in the United States. Establishing this fact is core to understanding why Reverend Wright said what he said.

In <a href=”http://jbotscharow.com/node/356&#8243; title=”Race and Social Justice In America Part 2″>Part 2</a> we took a look at the man named Jeremiah Wright, his background and made some general observations about the role of religion, and therefore, of the clergy, in African-American culture. Today, we will look more deeply into that relationship. Now, we do need to keep in mind that in the South, prior to the late 19th century, there were no formally ordained African-American clergy, but, as we shall see, there were a number of very influential “amatuer” preachers in the South that played important political roles. Understanding the strong political commitment of African-American preachers is essential to putting Reverend Wright’s comments into proper perspective.

The textbooks on American history talk very little about any form of resistance to slavery from within the slave population in the South or the involvement of African-Americans in the abolitionist movement in the North or in efforts like the Underground Railroad, an organized effort to smuggle slaves to freedom. But, if we do some research, we will find that there was a great deal of resistance to slavery by the slaves themselves and that African-Americans, often former slaves, were very active in the abolitionist movement and in efforts like the Underground Railroad.

The only organized resistance by African-Americans ever mentioned in the history books is the Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831, mainly because it was the most bloody one. Turner and his small band of slave rebels managed to kill somewhere between 17 and 50 whites, depending on who you read, in the two days of the rebellion. The whites retaliated by killing about 200 innocent slaves. Turner was caught, tried and hanged after eluding authorities for six weeks.

But, if you do some reading on Nat Turner, it is not the details of the rebellion that make him so fascinating and so pertinent to our discussion, but rather his background and his reasons for rebelling. Turner was a deeply religious man, a devout Christian who learned to read brom his master’s son, who read the Bible and prayed to God constantly. He took it upon himself to preach the Gospel to his fellow slaves.

He also was subject to visions, which started when he was a small child. As he become more and more devout in his Christianity, he believed these visions came from God, and it was these messages from God that were the prime reason he led a slave rebellion. Turner believed that God abhorred slavery – which I am sure he does – and that God had selected him to be the instrument of God in leading the slaves to freedom, much like Moses was for the Hebrews.

After his capture, Turner’s attorney collected some notes he found in the cave where Turner was hiding, along with transcripts of conversations the two had while Turne was in prison awating trial and then execution, and published them as “The Confession of Nat Turner,” It appears that the lawyer took some literary liberties and added some embellishments of his own to the confession, but, if you ignore those, the confession provides some very interesting insights into the religious mindset of the slaves [see the Sources and Readings list below].

Frederick Douglass, am escaped slave from Maryland who fled to New England, and who become a very influential speaker, newspaper publisher and political activist in the mid-nineteenth century, was one of the most popular speakers on abolition and worked very closley with William Lloyd Garrison, the founder and leader of the national anti-slavery movement in the North. At first. Douglass supported Garrison’s view that slavery could and shoul be abolished through non-violent means, but, later on, he grew more militant, so much so that he was invited by John Brown to participate in the raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859.

Douglass, who lived in Rochester, NY, was also a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad. For many years, he and his wife fed and sheltered runaway slaves as they worked their way to Canada.

In all of his anti-slavery prose, both his lectures and his newspaper editorials, Douglass used a moral stance grounded in Christian teaching. Although he never really functioned as a preacher, it is apparent from his lectures and his editorials, that he shared Nat Turner’s conviction: God finds slavery abhorrent and that slavery has no place in a supposedly Christian country, Like Turner, Douglass came to believe that the only way that the slaves would be freed would be through force of arms and that African-Americans, both slave and free, had to take an active role in that struggle. That was why he was so adamant about changing Union military policy to allow blacks to enlist in the Union Army.

Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth were both female runanway slaves who become both itinerant preachers and conductors on the Underground Railraod, going South and leading other slaves to freedoma. Both had deep Christian roots and, like Douglass and Turner, felt that it was their Christian duty to fight slavery.

These people are not all that unusual in the Arfican-American community of the 19th century prior to the Civil War. In my research I learned that there had been numerous smaller slave rebellions in the South and that many other slaves who had escaped to freedom became an integral part of the Underground Railroad, returning to the South to lead others to freedom. The risks to those conductors and their passengers were extremely high and many failed, sometimes paying with their lives for those failures.

This sense that God abhorred slavery and that escape to freedom was ordained by God was a deep current in African-American culture of the time. Just listen to the lyrics of the spirituals that have become such a part of American culture. One of my favorites, “Go Down Moses (Set My People Free)” is a prime example. The slaves, when they sang this song were singing about themselves and their yearning for freedom. They saw themselves and their own plight in the plight of the Hebews in Egypt. They looked for their own Moses to come lead them out of captivity. [One of the code names used by Harriet Tubman on her trips South apparently was Moses].

In the media commentary about Reverend Wright, there has been a lot of references about “black liberation theology.” Those references, like the one below, all seem to treat “bliack liberation theology” as something recent.

<cite>Black liberation theology originated on July 31, 1966, when 51 black pastors bought a full page ad in the New York Times and demanded a more aggressive approach to eradicating racism. They echoed the demands of the black power movement, but the new crusade found its source of inspiration in the Bible.</cite>
<a href=”http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=88512189&#8243; title=”A Closer Look at Black Liberation Theology”>A Closer Look at Black Liberation Theology</a>

Yes, it does have its roots in the Bible, very much so, but, no, it did not get its start in 1966. rather, it got its start in the Confession of Nat Turner in 1831 and perhaps even earlier in the spirituals of African-American Christianity.

This, my friends, is the context that needs to be understood when talking about the remarks of Reverend Jeremiah Wright. That is what we will do in Part 4.  Until next time, peace!

<strong>Sources and Recommended Reading:</strong>

<a href=”http://www.nathanielturner.com/adefeatsweeterthanvictory.htm&#8221; title=”A Defeat Sweeter than Victory”>A Defeat Sweeter than Victory</a> – a very interesting look at the Confession of 1831 of Nat Turner

<a href=”http://www.nathanielturner.com/originsafricanamericanspiritualism.htm&#8221; title=”Origins Of African American Spiritualism”>Origins Of African American Spiritualism</a>

<a href=”http://ctl.du.edu/spirituals/Freedom/source.cfm&#8221; title=”Spirituals as a Source of Inspiration and Motivation”>Spirituals as a Source of Inspiration and Motivation</a>

<a href=”http://my.homewithgod.com/heavenlymidis2/moses.html&#8221; title=”o Down Moses”>o Down Moses</a> – the complete lyrics to the spiritual

<a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_theology&#8221; title=”Black theology”>Black theology</a> – from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


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